THE ignoble attempt by the authorities to cover up the October 20, 2020 slaughtering of unarmed #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos was recently exposed in the report of the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses submitted to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, but which has since been leaked.
Headed by Doris Okuwobi, a retired judge, the nine-member panel found that there were 48 casualties of which nine were confirmed dead on the night soldiers stormed the toll gate and the world watched in horror the dispersal of peaceful protesters who were waving the national flag and singing the national anthem to protest police brutality and extrajudicial killings. The panel described the incident as a “massacre in context.”
The 309-page report provided graphic details of how after soldiers exited the scene, the Nigeria Police Force followed up with the killing of the protesters, shooting directly at fleeing demonstrators, who were running into shanties and the lagoon. Officials of the Lagos State Environmental Health Monitoring Unit reportedly evacuated dead bodies and deposited them at various hospital mortuaries in the state. The report shockingly averred that some trucks with brushes underneath were brought to the Lekki Tollgate in the morning of October 21, to clean up the scene and conceal evidence. This is nothing short of evil.
The entire saga was brutal suppression of the fundamental right of citizens to stage a peaceful protest. In a bid to bring an end to the incessant killings and extortion of innocent youths by officers of the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the police, youths had taken to the streets in major cities to demand an end to police brutality. Though the immediate demand of the protesters was the disbandment of SARS, they also initiated a ‘Five-for-Five Demand,’ calling for an increase in police salaries, and a psychological evaluation of police personnel, among others. While the protests at the Lekki Tollgate and Alausa were peaceful, thugs, some of whom were ferried in official government vehicles and police vans, hijacked the protests in other areas, attacking demonstrators, looting, and invading prisons and police stations.
Sanwo-Olu eventually imposed a curfew on the state, but the protesters remained resolute. Before nightfall, the Lekki Concession Company, which operates the tollgate on behalf of the state government, turned out the lights that gave the murderous soldiers and bloodthirsty police officers the cover to perpetuate the dastardly act. While indicting the LCC, the panel found that the firm hampered the panel’s investigations by refusing to turn over some useful and vital evidence as requested, even where such information and evidence was by the company’s admission, available. It accused the LCC of manipulating the incomplete CCTV video footage of the Lekki Tollgate on the night of October 20, 2020, which it tendered before the panel.
Thankfully, some of the protesters were able to record the shootings at the tollgate in real-time. Apart from the LCC, the National Broadcasting Commission must also be called out for its shameful role in trying to suppress the news on the #EndSARS protests. The NBC, which has become the government’s willing tool for stifling the press, fined Channels, Arise and AIT TV stations for using what it termed “unverified footage” of the tollgate incident even though it was obvious that the videos were authentic and have not been discredited till date.
Under the supervisory purview of a lapdog Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, NBC now issues fines arbitrarily under the guise of curbing “fake news.” This undermines the role of the media as watchdogs of society as enshrined in Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution, which states that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
For over a year, several witnesses to the Lekki killings came forward, insisting that people were murdered at the tollgate. Amnesty International estimated that at least 12 persons were killed. CNN, in a detailed investigative report, narrated how soldiers fired live bullets at protesters, but the government persisted in its denials. Mohammed persistently tried to hoodwink and bamboozle Nigerians into thinking otherwise. He infamously dismissed the incident as a “massacre with no bodies,” and scoffed at #EndSARS protesters. With his penchant for tagging every unfavourable report as fake news, the minister endlessly adopted subterfuge to discredit the entire #EndSARS protests even while the panel had yet to turn in its report.
After continually demonising the protesters, he shifted his attacks to Twitter until the social media platform was suspended by the repressive and authoritarian regime of the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.). He accused the networking service of funding the #EndSARS protests, among others. Mohammed stated that Twitter must bear vicarious liability for the damage that ensued after hoodlums hijacked the protests. Rightly too, human rights groups have now called for the sacking of Mohammed for his role in the #EndSARS protests.
Whether now or in the future, public officials who were directly or indirectly linked to the horrors of Lekki Tollgate should be made to face justice. The massacre is not only of government savagery but also of unparalleled courage on the part of the Nigerian youth who welcomed soldiers’ smouldering bullets with the national flag and anthem while breathing their last. We certainly hope that they will never be forgotten. The dishonourable role played by the Central Bank of Nigeria cannot be forgotten. The CBN deviated from its statutory role of monetary policy and regulating banks to delve into politics. Persons who played key roles in the protests by sending or receiving funds had their accounts frozen by the CBN on the bizarre pretext of terror financing. Illegally, the protesters were denied access to their accounts for 90 days until the court lifted the ban after discovering that the CBN’s case had no substance. The CBN’s disreputable conduct demonstrates how low the apex bank has sunk under the leadership of Godwin Emefiele.
The Buhari regime also placed protesters on a watch list, seizing their passports and refusing to issue new ones to some others. To date, some protesters are still being victimised by the government. The indiscriminate arrest of protesters last month during the anniversary of #EndSARS shows that clearly, the autocratic regime has learnt no lessons from the demonstrations. Buhari must be reminded that the right to protest is guaranteed by Nigerian law.
Diplomats say the damning report of the #EndSARS panel wherein soldiers killed unarmed protesters, now puts Nigeria at a renewed risk of an arms embargo by the United States under the Leahy Law, and American rights law that prohibits the US government from providing military assistance to foreign security force units that violate human rights with impunity. Already, the US, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and others have called for a transparent implementation of the report, even as the Buhari regime awaits the white paper to be issued by the Lagos State Government.
The panel’s report must not be confined to the archives like others before it, including the Kaduna State Commission of Inquiry into the December 2015 clashes between the members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and the Nigerian Army, which recommended the prosecution of the soldiers who participated in the massacre of 347 Shiites, including women and children. The failure of the government to ensure justice has led to continuous protests by Shiites over five years later. Already, officials are shamelessly frenziedly trying to discredit the #EndSARS report.
The Lagos State Government can play its part by preferring charges against the soldiers, police officers and others indicted by the panel, while compensation should be swiftly handed to victims. All those languishing in detention for taking part in the protests in the past year should be released; the identified criminals among them should be swiftly tried.
Buhari, who claims to be a “born again” democrat, must now prove to the world how reformed he truly is. Justice is the basis of any democratic government. The military authorities must ensure that the soldiers who were indicted are made to face the law while genuine and quick police reforms should be implemented to not only honour the memory of those killed but to avert another round of #EndSARS protests. Anything short of this is unacceptable.